The 2017 elections in the United States were quite a revelation. Pretty much everywhere where the Republicans could have lost, they lost. The marquee race, the contest for governor of Virginia – which was supposed to be close – was won easily (54-45) by Democrat Ralph Northam over Republican Ed Gillespie, who had attempted to emulate Trump by running an anti-immigrant scare campaign. And downballot in the Virginia House of Delegates – the lower house of the Virginia legislature – the Democrats flipped at least 15 seats, going from a lopsided 66-34 disadvantage to almost tied (51-49). The newly-elected included a transgender woman (who defeated an ultra-conservative Republican, self-described as “Virginia’s chief homophobe”) and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (who defeated the GOP House majority whip). These shifts were not expected by the even the most optimistic Democratic observer.
All over the country, we saw unusual and significant results. Maine’s electors over-rode their conservative governor and voted by initiative to implement the Obamacare-funded expansion of Medicaid. A special election victory in Washington state gave Democrats control of the Senate and thereby unified control of government in that state (Governor, Senate, House). Democrats flipped three open seats in the Georgia state legislature. A black Liberian immigrant was elected mayor of Helena, the capital of Montana. A Sikh was elected mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey (a state where Democrats easily won the governor’s race as well). A black woman was elected mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. And so it went, as a blue wave swept the country.
One must be cautious in reading too much into any one election, especially one such as this with contests scattered irregularly around the country. But there are some important takeaways that can be discerned from the pattern of results. Here is my countdown of the top five.
5. Trump and the GOP have not repealed the laws of politics. Normally, one would expect that a very unpopular incumbent president, pursuing very unpopular policies and showing essentially no legislative accomplishments, would hurt the incumbent party at the ballot box. But people were very cautious in assuming this would be so for Trump and the GOP, given his unexpected victory in the 2016 election, which seemed to defy normal political expectations.
As it turns out, Trump has not rewritten the rule books. He is historically unpopular for a US President at this stage of his term (37-38% approval/56-57% disapproval), has made innumerable inflammatory statements that most voters dislike and has pushed, with his party, a health care plan that was detested by the public and died in Congress. This should have hurt the Republicans and it did, consistent with historical patterns and standard political science research.
4. The Democrats are looking very good for 2018. The stakes in 2018 will be far higher than in 2017, with all US House members up for election, plus 33 US senators, 36 state governors and 6,066 state legislators (82% of the country’s total). Prospects for the Democrats now look very positive indeed for this election.
The Democrats currently have a wide lead of around 9 points on the generic congressional ballot (which party’s congressional candidate would you vote for if the election were held today?), which predicts a Democratic gain sufficiently large (they need to pick up 23 seats) to take back the US House of Representatives. Moreover, the general pattern is for the incumbent party’s generic ballot disadvantage to widen, not contract, as we get closer to the election, so the Democrats appear well-positioned to make the necessary gains; at this point, they should be considered the favorites for this contest.
Other factors on their side besides Trump’s dreadful approval ratings include a wave of Republican retirements from disillusioned legislators, creating more open seats; tremendous Democratic success in recruiting candidates for Congress and lower offices; strong Democratic performance in various ‘special’ elections (elections held off-cycle to fill a suddenly vacant seat) held since Trump assumed office; and the general historical pattern that the opposition party gains ground in midterm elections. In short, the pieces are in place for another Democratic wave in 2018, where the results will carry far more weight than those of the elections just held.
3. White college graduates are looking more and more like a Democratic constituency. It is remarkable how wide the education divide now is among white voters, with white college graduates and non-graduates steadily diverging in their political behavior. New estimates we have developed at the Center for American Progress indicate that both Obama in 2012 and Clinton in 2016 carried white college graduates nationwide, with Clinton achieving a solid 7 point lead among this demographic. Our estimates also show that Clinton carried white college graduates in most swing states, sometimes by wide margins.
Statistical and anecdotal evidence indicate that this trend only intensified in the 2017 elections. My estimate, based on trends revealed by the exit polls and our own work on voting patterns among this demographic, is that Democrats carried white college graduates by double digits in the Virginia gubernatorial race.
2. Keep your eye on millennials. In 2016, Democrats carried 18-29 year olds by 27 points, according to our estimates. Moreover, Clinton carried young voters by wide margins in all swing states, including in ones she lost. And very significantly, in most of these swing states she also carried white millennials, indicating just how profound this generational shift is.
This pattern carried over to 2017 where Democrats carried the youth vote by 39 and 48 points, respectively, in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections.
1. The white working class vote is still the Democrats’ critical weakness. The 2017 election wasn’t all roses for the party. In Virginia, Northam still lost the white non-college-educated vote by around 40 points, with very little improvement on Clinton’s performance in the state in 2016. This is especially worrisome because white non-graduates, despite constituting a declining share of the vote, remain a larger group than white college-educated voters in almost all states, and far larger in the Rustbelt states that gave the Democrats so much trouble in the 2016 election.
There are positive signs however in trends among white non-graduates, particularly from the millennial generation according to our analysis of 2016 election data. To build on these trends and make some inroads generally among these voters, Democrats will probably have to offer something besides vigorous denunciations of Trump, who is more popular – though slipping – with these voters than with the rest of country. If Wall Street financier Robert Rubin, the Democrats’ quintessential 1990s neoliberal economic figure, is now advocating for a massive public jobs program, perhaps it’s time to make that offer to these voters and to the rest of the electorate. The political winds are shifting and fortune belongs to the bold.